Viennale Celebrations

For Film Comment (January-February 2013). — J.R.

 

My first experience of Vienna — Christmas 1970 with my girlfriend, another American expatriate in Paris — felt mostly like an alienating visit to the lofty tomb of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Apart from The Magic Flute at the Opera and many favorite Bruegels a few blocks away at the Kunsthistorische Museum, the city seemed to belong exclusively to locals, only one of whom I slightly knew — Peter Kubelka at the Austrian Filmmuseum — and after a brief visit to say hello to him, our only cinematic activity was attending a commercial rerun and lousy print of Torn Curtain dubbed into German.

http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/01/2d/bb/c5/bruegel-s-peasant.jpg

 

Over a quarter of a century later, thanks to the Viennale, my next encounter with the city was entirely different, introducing me to a vibrant alternative film scene differing from, say, the Rotterdam film festival by virtue of having so many gifted local experimental filmmakers around in the immediate vicinity (among others, Martin Arnold, Gustav Deutsch, Kubelka, Lisl Ponger, and Peter Tscherkassky) and a much broader age group of passionate cinephiles turning up at the screenings. The latter scene was clearly the creation of such programmers as Alexander Horwath (Kubelka’s successor at the Filmmuseum and a onetime Viennale codirector) and Hans Hurch, a former assistant to Straub-Huillet who has been the Viennale’s inspired director since 1997.Read more »

Nurse Betty

From the Chicago Reader (September 1, 2000). — J.R.

nurse_betty

It isn’t surprising that John C. Richards and James Flamberg won the prize for best screenplay at the 2000 Cannes film festival; this offbeat and unpredictable comedy-thriller throws so many curveballs, one right after another, that I doubt I’ve had more fun at an American movie this year. You should know as little in advance about the plot as possible, so let’s just say that the title heroine (Renee Zellweger), a poorly treated housewife in a small town in Kansas who’s addicted to a daytime soap and smitten with one of its main characters (Greg Kinnear), drives out west to find him, with a couple of bickering hit men on her tail. The latter are played by Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock — who may be the most exciting tragicomic duo to come along since Martin and Lewis and at the very least deserve a sitcom or comic strip detailing their further exploits. There’s a lot going on in this movie about fantasy fulfillment and folie a deux in general, and one of the most remarkable things about it is that it was directed by Neil LaBute, the writer-director of the highly misanthropic In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors; this starts out with a similarly nasty edge and then turns warmer, funnier, and perhaps even wiser by the minute.… Read more »

The Importance of Being Perverse (Godard’s KING LEAR)

This appeared in the April 8, 1988 issue of the Chicago Reader and is reprinted in my first collection, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. – J.R.

KING LEAR

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Jean-Luc Godard

With Peter Sellars, Burgess Meredith, Jean-Luc Godard, Molly Ringwald, Norman Mailer, Kate Miller, Leos Carax, and Woody Allen.

Jean-Luc Godard’s latest monkey wrench aimed at the Cinematic Apparatus — that multifaceted, impregnable institution that regulates the production, distribution, exhibition, promotion, consumption, and discussion of movies — goes a lot further than most of its predecessors in creatively obfuscating most of the issues it raises. Admittedly, Hail Mary caused quite a ruckus on its own, but mainly among people who never saw the film. King Lear, which I calculate to be Godard’s 34th feature to date, has the peculiar effect of making everyone connected with it in any shape or form — director, actors, producers, distributors, exhibitors, spectators, critics — look, and presumably feel, rather silly. For better and for worse, it puts us all on the spot; as Roland Barthes once wrote of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saló, it prevents us from redeeming ourselves.

From its birth, a table-napkin contract signed by Godard and producer Menahem Golan of Cannon Films at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985, to its disastrous world premiere at Cannes two years later, the project has always seemed farfetched and unreal, even as a hypothesis.… Read more »

City Without Tears [Tsai Ming-liang's THE RIVER]

This appeared, in a somewhat different form, in the April 14, 2000 issue of the Chicago Reader. –J.R.

THE RIVER **** Directed by Tsai Ming-liang Written by Tsai, Yang Bi- ying, and Tsai Yi-chun With Lee Kang-sheng, Miao Tien, Lu Hsiao-ling, Chen Shiang-chyi,Chen Chao-jung, and Ann Hui.

1. I wouldn’t know how to plunge headlong into a single approach towards a film as strange and as shocking as The River – Tsai Ming-liang’s third feature, playing this week at Facets Multimedia — so a series of alternative perspectives seems desirable. The problem is, even starting off by labeling this movie a masterpiece reminds me how such an assertion in some cases amounts to a gamble more than a certainty, however much one may prefer to pretend otherwise.

What’s my alibi for this lack of confidence? First of all, a sense that when one encounters something as downright peculiar as The River, the first impulse is not to assert anything at all but to ask, “What the hell is this?” And to pretend to answer such a question, one ultimately has to fall back on one’s experience before even attempting an analysis.

In my case, I’ve experienced The River twice, both times in less than ideal circumstances: with German subtitles at the Vienna Film Festival two and a half years ago, and, just before writing this, a copy of an English commercial video, with English subtitles, that a friend was kind enough to make for me when I discovered that there wasn’t any other way I could see this film again before reviewing it.… Read more »

Voluptuous Defeat: Philippe Garrel and LES AMANTS RÉGULIERS

Commissioned by Sight and Sound, and written for their August 2006 issue. — J.R.

Considering how much admiration I have for the films of Philippe Garrel, it’s hard to avoid some feelings of guilt and consternation for not liking them more –  especially when I consider how much they mean to others whose tastes I admire. Why do I find myself preferring the work of his best-known disciple, Leos Carax?

This is a problem I’ve been wrestling with for a quarter of a century. For the past decade, I’ve been trying to theorize my disaffection by ascribing the passion of my younger friends for this melancholy star of the French underground to a generational taste I can’t share. In some respects, I even like the way they like Garrel’s films more than I like the films themselves. They generate a kind of awe that few other filmmakers inspire, and the fact that he’s a minority taste in no way disqualifies him from being a major talent.

 

These far-flung cinéphiles, all born around 1960, include Nicole Brenez, based in Paris; Alexander Horwath, based in Vienna; Kent Jones, based in New York; and Adrian Martin, based in Melbourne —- all of whom share similarly acute feelings for John Cassavetes, Abel Ferrara, Monte Hellman, and Maurice Pialat.… Read more »

FILMMAKERS UNITE (FU): A COLLECTIVE RESPONSE TO THE CURRENT REGIME OF THE U.S.

Filmmakers Unite

It’s the last day of the Cine Palium Fest in Palo del Colle, a medieval

village in southern Italy, where I’ve been serving on one of the juries,

and for me the highlight of the week has been the world premiere this

morning of an omnibus feature coproduced by Jay Rosenblatt and

Ellen Bruno consisting of thirteen very diverse but entertaining

pieces of anti-Trump agit-prop by seventeen filmmakers, in the

following order: Sarah Clift (a charming fiction about a Mexican

mother riding on her motorbike to a remote cave to acquire a huge

Trump doll from a mysterious shaman to serve as her little boy’s

birthday piñata), Pacho Velez and Nicole Salazar (the Trump

Inauguration as seen or ignored at the Tijuana border control), Kate

Amend and Pablo Bryant, Shy Hamilton, Ferne Pearlstein, Rosenblatt

(a characteristically Rosenblattian creepy and funny reworking of found

footage), Kris Samuelson and John Haptas, Usama Alshaibi (a scary look

at and listen to what American talk radio sounds like to someone with a

Muslim background who’s driving), Chel White, David Sampliner and

Rachel Shuman, Alan Berliner (a succinct way of summarizing what a

divided country consists of and feels like), Eva Ilana Brzeski (heart-

stopping portraiture of fellow Americans that reminds me of both

Dovzhenko and Costa), and Jeremy Rourke (reminding us of how joy

can be an empowering form of resistance).… Read more »

The Problem with Poetry: Leos Carax

From the May-June 1994 Film Comment; also reproduced in my collection Movies as Politics. (For some briefer and more recent comments about Carax’s Merde and Holy Motors, go here.) — J.R.

First come words. No, emotions . . .
— line overheard in party scene of BOY MEETS GIRL

Introducing André Bazin’s Orson Welles: A Critical View in the late 70s, François Truffaut registered his opinion that “all the difficulties that Orson Welles has encountered with the box office . . . stem from the fact that he is a film poet. The Hollywood financiers (and, to be fair, the public throughout the world) accept beautiful prose — John Ford, Howard Hawks — or even poetic prose — Hitchcock, Roman Polanski — but have much more difficulty accepting pure poetry, fables, allegories, fairy tales.” [Translated by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Los Angeles: Acrobat Books, 1991, 26.]

I’m not at all sure about fables and allegories — think of Campion’s THE PIANO and Kieslowski’s BLUE for two recent examples, neither of which the public seems to have much difficulty in accepting — and the Disney organization churns out fairy tales on a regular basis. But when it comes to poetry, pure and otherwise, I think Truffaut had a point.… Read more »

Leos Carax’s MERDE

For me the most interesting “ten best” list included in the January-February 2009 issue of Film Comment is the dozen titles offered by my favorite Japanese film critic, Shigehiko Hasumi. And what’s especially interesting about his list is the inclusion of Leos Carax’s Merde – the middle episode in the three-part feature Tokyo! (2008), flanked by contributions from Michel Gondry and Joon-ho Bong. Decidedly over-the-top in both theme and style as well as execution, and starring former circus acrobat Denis Lavant, who also plays the lead role in Carax’s first three features — an actor who’s surely even more important to this filmmaker’s work than Jean-Pierre Léaud was to the early features of Truffaut — Merde is a provocation and something of an anomaly, even for someone as eclectic as Carax. (It’s also his first film of any length since his 1999 Pola X, his only major film without Lavant.)

Clearly inspired, at least in its opening stretches, by Jean-Louis Barrault in Jean Renoir’s odd Jekyll-and-Hyde adaptation, Le Testament du docteur Cordelier (1961) [see below], Lavant plays a monster who emerges from the Tokyo sewers to wreak random and violent havoc on Tokyo pedestrians until he gets brought to trial, where he gets defended by an equally strident French lawyer (Jean-François Balmer, in a performance that’s almost as extravagant as Lavant’s).… Read more »

En movimiento: The Crimes of Harvey Weinstein

Written in November 2017 for my  “En movimiento” column in Caimán Cuadernos de Cine. — J.R.

En movimiento: The Crimes of Harvey Weinstein

Although we routinely assume that social trends have a rational basis, the processes by which irrational forms of displacement also affect those trends are no less routinely ignored. For instance, it’s commonly thought that the Watergate scandal leading to Richard Nixon’s resignation as U.S. President was merely a matter of exposing his crimes, but it could also be argued that many of these crimes were already evident to U.S. citizens before Nixon won his last Presidential election. As Mary McCarthy would later theorize, it was because the public needed a scapegoat for the U.S. debacle in Vietnam that the Watergate crimes belatedly became important. And one might similarly theorize that the recent public exposure and condemnation of producer-distributor Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator, which has led to many similar exposures of predatory sexual behavior by others in the film world (such as James Toback and Kevin Spacey) as well as in separate fields, has been a displaced response to the debacle of Donald Trump’s Presidency, not to mention his own primitive sexual politics, which were exposed by the release of a private tape during the Presidential campaign.… Read more »

Death by a Thousand Director’s Cuts

From Slate (posted June 23, 2009). — J.R.

One of the key paradoxes of contemporary movie culture is that some film lovers claim that cinema is dying, others maintain that it’s entering a renaissance, and both factions are right. It all depends on whose movie culture you’re talking about.

The problem is how elastic and imprecise our terminology has become. Nowadays, when somebody says, “I’ve just seen a movie,” we don’t necessarily know whether the speaker saw it in a theater or on a mobile phone, alone or with a thousand other people, on celluloid or on a disc. These aren’t really the same experiences, even if we choose to call them all The Godfather or Up. And when it comes to distinguishing between film history and advertising, we may be even more confused.

One reason why we may be entering a renaissance in film viewing is that we no longer have to go to Paris or New York in order to learn anything comprehensive about the history of the medium as an art form. We can, in fact, live almost anywhere, at least if we own a multiregional DVD player — and nowadays one can acquire one of these for less than $50.Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: A Few Items That You May Not Know About

From the Spring 2012 issue of Cinema Scope. Some of the facts here may be out of date, so prospective customers should proceed with caution. — J.R.

The arrival on DVD of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s three solo features — Poto and Cabengo (1980), Routine Pleasures (1986), and My Crasy Life (1992) — has been long overdue, and it’s possible that part of the delay can be attributed to how unclassifiable and original these nonfiction films really are. The first of these has something to do with young twin sisters who were believed to have developed a private language between them, the second has something to do with both Manny Farber (as both a painter and a film critic) and a group of model train fans, and the third has something to do with the members of a Samoan street gang. But apart from Gorin’s presence and (quite diverse) Southern California settings, they’re very hard to describe or encapsulate, much less generalize about as a “trilogy” in any ordinary sense, which is part of their enduring fascination. (The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of Chris Marker’s Sans soleil [1982], which roams freely across the planet, already available with La jetée [1962] on a Criterion DVD and now out on a Criterion Blu-ray with the same materials — including terrific monologues by Gorin about both films that show how finely attuned he is to their special qualities, both as a friend of Marker and as a film essayist in his own right.) Criterion’s Eclipse has now issued all three as its 31st package, but in a refreshing departure from its usual “no-frills” format, this set includes three essays by Kent Jones — a longer one included with Poto and Cabengo about all three films, and shorter pieces with and about the other two — that are thoughtful explorations and meditations in their own right.… Read more »

1991 in Movies

From the Chicago Reader (January 3, 1992). — J.R.

Looking at the big-time U.S. studio releases of 1991 — most of which enjoyed free supplements to their hefty advertising budgets from every branch of the media — we’d have to conclude that this was a year without enduring masterpieces. The best are intelligent entertainments, most of which faded quickly from memory. If I had to choose the ten best from this group, they’d be (in alphabetical order): Barton Fink, Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, Defending Your Life, The Fisher King, For the Boys, Jungle Fever, Once Around, Rambling Rose, and Thelma and Louise. Equally good or even better are some new American pictures that didn’t get anything like the same national attention: Chameleon Street, City of Hope, The Deadman (only 37 minutes long, but better than most features I saw), Hangin’ With the Homeboys, A Little Stiff, My Own Private Idaho, Poison, Reunion, and Trust. The best American documentaries that come to mind are Butoh: Body at the Edge of Crisis, Inside Life Outside, Lines of Fire, Paris Is Burning, Private Conversations on the Set of Death of a Salesman, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and the videos of Sadie Benning.… Read more »

Old Wave Saved from Drowning (with Sandy Flitterman)

From American Film (November 1981). — J.R.

Old Wave Saved from Drowning

By Sandy Flitterman and Jonathan Rosenbaum

Think of French cinema, and the New Wave springs immediately to mind. This association is hardly accidental. History, it is often said, gets written by the victors. And the victories recounted in the standard film histories — whether they are critical successes or box-office triumphs — are inevitably at the expense of other movies, individuals, or social trends that presumably failed to scale the same heights.

But the New Wave, like other movements in film history, is significant not only for what it gave us — films like Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Godard’s Breathless, and Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour — but also for what it took away, for the films it rebelled against, repudiated, buried in the dustbin of history. Now a fascinating new program of forty-six subtitled French films made between 1930 and 1960 helps sketch out the rudiments of just such an alternative history.

This group of films, appropriately entitled “Rediscovering French Film,” has been put together by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in cooperation with the French government and, after premiering in Manhattan this month, is scheduled to travel next year to Washington, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago.… Read more »

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

From the Chicago Reader (March 1, 1991). — J.R.

rosencrantz guildenstern

Tom Stoppard freely adapts, directs, and all but destroys his own enjoyable and provocative absurdist play about two minor characters in Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Gary Oldman and Tim Roth), victims of a drama taking place in the wings that they can neither understand nor control. Critic Kenneth Tynan suggested that the play may have been the first to use another play as decor; if so, then the film uses two plays — Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — and often the consequences are even more confusing than Stoppard could have intended. I can’t imagine a play less suited for a film adaptation, although Stoppard might have turned this to his advantage had he confronted that paradox. Instead he tries to open up a work that depends upon a sense of claustrophobic limbo, then undermines that approach by focusing the camera so tightly on the characters that he muddles our sense of spatial continuity. In Stoppard’s play, Hamlet is something semi-inexplicable that happens to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, while the screenplay turns it into something they’re obliged to chase after; unfortunately, Stoppard’s sense of film is so inferior to his feeling for the stage that he makes the same compromises and reductions a Hollywood hack might have brought to the material.… Read more »

Questions about Film Acting: A Dialogue with James Naremore

Written for the Savannah-based, online Cine-Files in May 2014, posted circa early June, and reprinted here, with their permission (and some added illustrations). — J.R.

Acting-in-the-Cinema

JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: For me, a key part of your argument in Acting in the Cinema (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) occurs in your fourth chapter, “Expressive Coherence and Performance within Performance,” when you argue that even a sincere expression of one’s feelings is an actorly performance, “because the expression of ‘true’ feeling is itself a socially conditioned behavior.”  Which then leads you to quote from Brecht:

“One easily forgets that human education proceeds along theatrical lines. In a quite theatrical manner a child is taught how to behave; logical arguments only come later. When such-and-such occurs, it is told (or sees), one must laugh….In the same way it joins in shedding tears, not only weeping because the grow-ups do so but also feeling genuine sorrow. This can be seen at funerals, whose meaning escapes children entirely. These are theatrical events which form the character. The human being copies gesture, miming, tones of voice. And weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.” (69)

It seems to me that one reason why acting tends to be neglected in film criticism is that we can too easily confuse it with other elements — writing, directing, the ‘auras” of certain personalities, even certain casting decisions — in much the same way that we’re often confused or misguided about the sources of our own behavior (such as, are we weeping to express sorrow or to produce sorrow?) Or do you see this neglect stemming from other reasons?… Read more »